Robby Gordon has never shied away from a challenge when it comes to auto racing. The 36-year-old NASCAR driver spends most of his time in the seat of a stock car these days, but took time out to compete in the 27th Dakar rally.
Gordon has also won at both NASCAR road course events, at Sears Point Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen.
Even with Gordon's superior road and off-road racing skills, Dakar still spelled a significant test. With its 16 stages covering 8,956 kilometers over 17 days (with one day of rest), it adds up to more distance than Formula One runs in an entire season of racing.
Gordon made history in his first Dakar special stage by covering the four-mile sprint along a beach outside Barcelona in four minutes, 20 seconds to win the opening stage. He was the first American to ever win a stage in a four-wheel vehicle in the world's most punishing cross-country rally.
"It was really fun," said Gordon. "The course got rutted after the motorcycles so we played slot cars. Overall this is like winning a qualifying race at Daytona. You are happy because because the equipment is good, happy you won but you still realize that once the race begins there are so many variables that can affect the outcome."
Gordon, driving a Volkswagen Race-Touareg, grabbed the stage four win, the first special on the African Continent, the day after his birthday. "The stage was magic! Whilst approaching the stage start I tested the car a little on gravel," expressed an elated Gordon. "We overtook Giniel de Villiers almost immediately after the stage had started and were able to drive our pace. I'm interested to see how the next stage looks."
Alas, he did not do so well in stage five. Gordon was unfamiliar with maneuvering his vehicle in that type of challenging terrain.
What started off so promising for Gordon skidded, literally, during stage six when he rolled the Touareg and his team had to spend most of the night making extensive repairs. The accident cost Gordon: he had to start stage seven in 115th place. Tenacious as Gordon is, however, he clawed his way back to a 26th place result in that stage.
After stage eight was canceled due to inclement weather, Gordon managed to gain a third place result in stage nine. Stage ten became all about the team, as Gordon worked feverishly to try and help his Volkswagen teammates stay in the top spots.
"Now, we are driving for the team, because Jutta (Kleinschmidt) could still climb on the podium in Dakar, and that's really important for Volkswagen," explained Gordon. "I have to help her, so I followed her all day. She was stuck behind a dune, so I stopped to help her dig and restart.
Then, with all the dust, I stopped to have a better visibility. Then we spent 5 minutes with Gregoire De Mevius who was seriously bleeding on the face. Without all of this, I'm sure I could have caught the Mitsubishi for stage victory, but I had to work for the team, so I stayed with Jutta on the track. Apart from that it was a hard stage, with lots of soft sand and camel grass."
The 16-stage race began New Year's Eve in Barcelona, Spain and wound through Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Senegal before ending with a 23-mile special stage that ran from West Africa's Atlantic Ocean to Lac Rose in Dakar.
Luck was not on board Gordon's Red Bull VW Touareg during the closing stages of the event. Between getting stuck in the desert (twice), suspension problems and when he loaned his steering system to teammate Jutta Kleinschmidt to ensure that she made it to the end of event on the podium.
"It was a good rally," commented Gordon. "As we left Germany for Barcelona I said that I wanted to win. To achieve this I pushed very hard from the off and had an accident. Afterwards I got really badly bogged down twice and helped Jutta. So we fell way back. But I have learnt a lot. Five days ago I was depressed and just wanted to go home. Now I want to return and win."
Gordon did his job as a team member, and the Volkswagen team celebrated their two top-five finishes. Not since 1980 had the team stood on the podium. On Sunday, January 16, Jutta Kleinschmidt and co-driver/navigator Fabrizia Pons had that honor with a third place finish.
Bruno Saby and co-driver/navigator Michel Perin finished fifth.
"The team deserves this success just as Volkswagen does -- everybody approached this project with great commitment and enthusiasm from the first day," said a very happy Kleinschmidt. "We made a good impression and had good results from the very beginning. First of all Robby Gordon led, then Bruno Saby. Later I was on course for a podium finish. A podium finish was our goal and it's absolutely fantastic that it all worked out."
Will Volkswagen ask Gordon to return and if so, will he? With the team's success this year, neither would be a surprise. That would depend on Gordon's commitment in NASCAR oval racing. The current Busch series team owner and Cup driver has been busy putting together his own Cup team for 2005.